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Monday, September 20, 2021

Column: Small screen

Books brick us up in houses or quiet corners of rooms to let us enjoy a lonely experience. Movies bring us out in the open, where we walk into dark rooms and enjoy an experience with strangers. Art galleries bunch us up with people who are just as stupid but not as dumb, so we’re pumped with pretentious conversation while scratching our heads at certain things and staring in amazement at others.
Is TV left to the bottom feeders of those searching for enjoyment? Is TV the hobby of the brain-dead, the mindless many who are able and willing to pour hours into a poor investment of recycled entertainment? Some will say TV has the potential for greatness; I say TV has done plenty to stake its claim as an art form.
Art is a matter of context, sometimes broad but often specific to individuals and settings. There are schools of thought that would lead some people to understand that anything and everything is art. For the most part, however, art follows certain conventions.

Art is aesthetic, which means that it has a quality that can be seen or felt, but not necessarily understood. Art is thought-provoking, but the quality of art is that it creates a change in our thought or makes us aware of how thoughtful we can be.

Using this criteria, we can plainly see how painting, song, film, literature and photography all became staples of art; they are things that we can clearly categorize under so vague a term. It’s odd that TV remains virtually untouched in serious thought about art, considering its similarity to these “standard” artforms.
Good television falls somewhere between books and film when we consider its usefulness as an art. It allows for much greater characterization than the standard two-hour movie, but it faces the same difficulty in doing so without the use of extensive text, which books can afford.
Shows like “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” go deep into exploring characters, putting them through trials that show us their weaknesses but also how strongly they can rise above them. They challenge convention and stereotypes to make us question their motivations and where our own loyalties lie after our hero is broken down, or takes a patient and subtle turn toward becoming the villain.
This is fiction with all the magic and subtlety of film, with all the depth of the greatest literature. It is just as thought-provoking as the most disturbing forms of art — in that it changes something in us — enjoyed by the masses.

Those who understand it eat it up; those who don’t are either the upturned noses of society or the true bottom feeders who live off the facets of television produced just for them.

What keeps us from recognizing TV as art? The scraps reserved for the bottom feeders.

Certainly not all TV is art: Daily airing soap operas and reality TV shows flood the networks with shit when too much time is left over. Art takes effort and creativity; in the case of television, it can also take a lot of money. A 24-hour cycle of never-ending TV is bound to pick up a lot of dead weight in the form of reproducible plot lines on interchangeable sitcoms, repetitive game shows and reality TV, and stories that never end, which is the case for soap operas.

Not every picture tacked to the wall can be art, but is a blank canvas not a symbol of art to be? Is a camera not as much a tool for creating art when it is aimed for the small screen than when it is aimed for the big screen?

The scraps of television slow the pace of its journey toward being considered a legitimate art form. However, they are a necessary evil, a placeholder for the future, like when someone turns a blank canvas into a beautiful painting and you can’t help but think that before there was art, there was nothing.

NICK FREDERICI has never seen Jersey Shore; spam him with clips at nrfred@ucdavis.edu.

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